Serin D. Houston Colleen Molnar

New Sanctuary Movement


2005 (December):  The “Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437),” colloquially known as the Sensenbrenner bill, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

2006 (March):  On Ash Wednesday, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony called upon Catholic clergy and laity to ignore the Sensenbrenner bill and continue conducting their community service work whatever the cost might be.

2006 (May):  On May Day, immigrant rights groups organized rallies titled “A Day Without Immigrants” across the country as a public protest against the Sensenbrenner bill, a bill which ultimately did not pass in the U.S. Senate.

2006 (August):  Elvira Arellano entered sanctuary in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, IL to avoid separation from her U.S. born son due to deportation orders. This act of seeking sanctuary drew national attention to the violence of immigration policies and enforcement.

2006 (December):  The coordinated raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on six meatpacking plants throughout the midwestern U.S. resulted in the detention of about 1,300 non-citizens. Moral outrage about these raids provided motivation for the founding of the NSM.

2007 (January):  Several faith groups gathered in Washington D.C. to listen to migrants’ testimonies and strategize about coalition-building. The affiliates adopted the name the “New Sanctuary Movement” after this meeting. This is another frequently cited origin story for the NSM.

2007 (May):  Liliana “Santuario” moved into sanctuary at the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, California to protest separation from her mixed-status family due to final deportation orders. Her three-year stay in sanctuary eventually won her Deferred Action Status and in 2015, a green card.

2007 (August):  After a year living in sanctuary, Elvira Arellano was detained and then deported after attending an immigrant rights rally in Los Angeles, California.

2014:  The New Sanctuary Movement experienced a resurgence in response to record high deportation rates. Faith communities in more than a dozen cities around the U.S. publicly announced they would provide refuge for non-citizens at immediate risk of removal.

2014:  The Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, provided sanctuary to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and Rosa Robles Loreto, the first migrants in thirty years to receive sanctuary at this church.

2014 (November):  President Barack Obama announced his Executive Action on immigration, which expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) and created a similar program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which would have allowed parents to delay their deportation dates by three years.

2015 (February):  Federal District Court Judge Andrew Hanen, based in the Southern Court of Texas, issued a temporary injunction on DAPA and an expanded DACA in response to a lawsuit filed by twenty-six states.

2017 (January):  President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13768, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”

2017:  Executive Order 13768 prioritized 287(g) agreements, which deputized local police to act as federal immigration enforcement and detain non-citizens. As of 2019, ICE had 81 287(g) agreements with various law enforcement agencies in twenty-one states, two-thirds of these agreements were signed during the Trump administration.

2017:  An ICE end-of-fiscal-year report showed that the agency had made 110,568 administrative arrests between January 25 and September 30, which is a forty-two percent increase from the same time period in 2016. This contributed to a heightened sense of precarity for migrants since the 2016 federal election.

2017:  Church World Services estimated that around 800 congregations were participating in the NSM.

2018:  A report on, the primary online platform for the NSM, stated that 1,100 congregations were involved in the movement.

2019:  In light of widespread raids, NSM chapters partnered with immigrant-led organizations to create #sacredresistance, a strategy for making houses of worship available as safe spaces for people escaping immigration raids.


Communities have drawn upon sanctuary as a practice for centuries. [Image at right]  For example, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh, and Hindu religious and spiritual traditions have afforded a type of refuge to the persecuted. Ancient Greeks and Romans also saw temples as safe spaces for people who had suffered harm. Sanctuary was a motivating force for slavery abolitionists, conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, and others interested in fighting for justice as well (Bagelman 2019; Rabben 2016; Ridgley 2011).

Within this broader lineage, the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) finds its most significant roots in the Sanctuary Movement for Central Americans (SM), a U.S. sociopolitical movement existent in the 1980s and early 1990s. [Image at right] In the early 1980s, a significant number of Central Americans, primarily Salvadorans and Guatemalans, fled war, violence, and oppression and migrated to the United States seeking political asylum. Although many of these migrants likely met standards set forth by the 1951 Refugee Convention, where a demonstrated well-founded fear of persecution is necessary to receive political asylum, the U.S. government largely classified these asylum seekers as economic migrants instead. The Reagan administration and its efforts to contain communism in sending countries contributed to this low acceptance rate of asylum seekers (Chinchilla et al. 2009; Coutin 1993; Houston and Morse 2017). Moral outrage about this situation sparked the development of the Sanctuary Movement.

Following the principles of Biblical passage Numbers 35, in which God instructs the Israelites to welcome the stranger as one of their own with all the associated legal and social rights, faith communities in the U.S. began to organize. For example, Jim Corbett, a Quaker leader, began an “underground railroad” in 1982 to transport migrants across the border to safer places in the U.S. and Canada (Garcia 2018:307). Reverend John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona publicly declared his church a sanctuary, the first in the U.S., on March 2, 1982, the second anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Rabben 2016:155). The congregation collectively stressed that they were following their God-given right to aid anyone fleeing persecution and abiding by a higher moral authority, as they saw current immigration laws as immoral and illegal (Garcia 2018:308). The SM grew over the 1980s, with a clear focus on political activism, civil disobedience, and the faith principles of justice and mercy, until it encompassed at least 500 churches and 500,000 migrants. To contextualize this, the Sanctuary Movement was the largest civil disobedience movement since the anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s (Lorentzen 1991:14). The citizens involved in the SM often emerged as the most visible movement leaders given their relative security as citizens with public identification. It is important to note, though, that the central participants in the SM were the migrants themselves. The movement would not have existed without them, their perspectives, and their leadership.

The New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), another faith-based social movement, is influenced and informed by the history and traditions of sanctuary practiced within the SM. Precise dates of the NSM’s formation vary; it has a multifaceted origin story. As a decentralized social movement with many chapters throughout major U.S. cities, sources name 2005 to 2008 as the key founding years for the NSM. The following describes some of the pivotal events that helped spark the movement’s formation. The “Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437),” often known as the Sensenbrenner bill, was a major catalyst for the NSM. The bill prompted nationwide outrage, especially among migrants and immigrant rights advocates because it would have criminalized entry into the U.S. through irregular channels and actions perceived as aiding non-citizens, including humanitarian assistance traditionally performed by religious organizations. In opposition to this bill and all it represented, faith leaders, such as Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, announced they would continue to do their work with migrant communities.

Another key moment arose in 2006 when Elvira Arellano entered sanctuary at Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, IL. She became a high-profile case for the NSM, and her 2007 deportation, after being detained by ICE at an immigrant rights rally in L.A., further galvanized the movement’s development. Liliana “Santuario” (Spanish for sanctuary), another early sanctuary seeker, entered sanctuary at the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, California in May 2007. Her months in sanctuary in the relatively wealthy and white community of Simi Valley received significant press, which furthered the formation of the NSM as well. Liliana lived in sanctuary for three years before receiving Deferred Action Status and then a green card.

The coordinated raids by ICE on six meatpacking plants run by Swift & Company in Utah, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and Minnesota on December 12, 2006 resulted in the detention of nearly 1,300 people. Many of these people were subsequently deported. The “Swift Raids,” as this incident is colloquially known, is often described as an instigator for the NSM. Following these raids, in January 2007 various faith leaders and organizations met in Washington, D.C. to listen to migrant families’ testimonies about facing deportation and family separation. The goal of “awakening the moral imagination of the country through prayer and witness” (New Sanctuary Movement 2007) surfaced as a key aspiration in this meeting. The desire to formalize sanctuary activities into a named movement also arose during this meeting. Hence, the name the New Sanctuary Movement grew out of this meeting, although faith-based activism pertaining to sanctuary had been happening before. By September of the same year, fifty churches, synagogues, and temples had signed on to the NSM. Their work was coordinated principally by three organizations: “Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice California, Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, and New York Sanctuary Coalition” (Skinner 2007).

Irrespective of precise origins, some important figures in the NSM include Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz and Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, both cited as co-founders (Barron 2017:195). Rev. Salvatierra was, in her words, a “foot soldier” (Frykholm 2017:32) in the Sanctuary Movement and then rose to prominence in the NSM. Rev. Ruiz came to the U.S. in the 1980s as a non-citizen and now serves as a Lutheran minister. Reverend Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, has also been prominent in the recent years of the NSM, especially through facilitating sanctuary for Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and Rosa Robles Loreto in 2014.

Migrants continue to play an important role in leading the movement as well, with Elvira Arellano and Liliana “Santuario” serving as early symbols of the urgency of sanctuary. More recently, Jeannette Vizguerra, a community organizer who sought sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church in Denver in 2017, organized calls with other non-citizens in sanctuary to offer support and affirm their importance to the movement. Vizguerra has urged migrants to assume leadership roles in the NSM, as they have the embodied knowledge of the issues at stake. The movement cannot be successful if it is solely comprised of U.S. citizens making decisions on behalf of non-citizens (Addanki 2017:30).

The NSM experienced a resurgence in 2014 in the midst of Obama-era deportation policies. Substantial increases in the number of deportations, often stemming from raids on workplaces and an enforcement focus on Central American migrants who had deportation orders issued by January 1, 2014, contributed to heightened precarity for non-citizens. With the uptick in deportations, the NSM redoubled its focus on providing sanctuary in places of worship to people in mixed-status families who faced deportation. Physical sanctuary is used as a strategy because ICE has an internal policy, outlined in Memo 10029.2, to avoid “sensitive” areas, such as churches, schools, and hospitals (Morton 2011). Thus, it would be detrimental optics for ICE to enter a place of worship and physically remove a non-citizen seeking safety there. Throughout the years, local NSM chapters have generally focused on stopping deportations on a case by case basis, while collectively, the NSM has aimed to “amplify the moral imperative to stop deportations by lifting up the stories of sanctuary cases” (New Sanctuary Movement 2015).

In order to not face legal action, NSM chapters publicly announce who is living in sanctuary. [Image at right] They hold press conferences and actively invite media attention, making their actions no secret. It is not a criminal infraction to harbor people with humanitarian intent (Frykholm 2017:32). In offering physical sanctuary, NSM activists argue that they are “not breaking the law; instead, the law itself was broken” (Rabben 2016:245). While the NSM provides physical sanctuary in places of worship, leaders recognize there will never be enough sites to house everyone, and that sanctuary cannot be the end goal, but rather a stopgap on the road to comprehensive immigration reform. Since the 2016 federal elections, in some local chapters of the NSM, activism has moved beyond physical sanctuary into sanctuary conceptualized as advocacy, direct action in the streets, and financial and material support.


The New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) has deep roots in theological tenets centered on justice, mercy, and compassion for the “stranger.” Although NSM chapters primarily represent Christian faith communities, with various denominations involved, there are other faith groups, such as Jewish and Islamic communities, who participate as well. Compassion for the poor and oppressed threads through sacred texts and narratives of the divine in many faith traditions. Thus, it makes sense that finding inspiration in and acting upon these principles and associated religious passages is a core component of the NSM. For example, Exodus tells the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, and one often cited chapter of Leviticus instructs readers to “treat the stranger as you would the native. Love him like one of your own. Remember you were once foreigners in Egypt” (The Bible, Leviticus 19:33-34). The call to welcome the stranger was particularly salient in the SM, as many sanctuary seekers were newly arrived migrants. [Image at right] In the NSM, the focus is on mixed-status families, so Leviticus’ reminder to love the stranger as yourself translates to loving longstanding non-citizen community members and neighbors. The provision of sanctuary further corresponds to the principle of “loving thy neighbor as thyself” from Luke (The Bible, Luke 10:27). The scriptural commandment of “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner” (Addanki 2017:,29) and the sentiments from Isaiah about learning to do well in the world and relieving oppression (The Bible, Isaiah 1:17) are also commonly referenced as key doctrinal beliefs for participants in the NSM.

Numbers 35, another Old Testament text, revolves around the idea of a city of refuge, where one can find safe harbor until a fair trial is available. Numbers 35 also stresses that religious followers “do not suggest questioning or detaining these visitors, but instead exhort the Israelites to welcome gērîm [refugees] as members of the community, even into their most sacred rituals and celebrations” (Beck 2018:134). The NSM engages with this perspective through urging congregants to help non-citizens living in sanctuary feel at home and welcomed within the host community through religious fellowship and financial and material support (New Sanctuary Movement 2015).

While the NSM appears in popular press as heavily Christian, it is in practice a multi-faith movement. For Jewish participants, much of the scripture cited as motivation for the NSM comes from shared texts in both the Christian Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible. The stories of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, for instance, resonate as much with Jewish congregations as Christian ones. The Passover story in Exodus of Moses leading his people out of Egypt is one of the most well-known Jewish stories, and its teachings are central in Jewish support for the NSM. Jewish texts and halachic law, as well as Jewish experiences with persecution, guide participation in the NSM.

Islamic congregations are involved in the NSM, as the Quran also teaches mercy and compassion towards refugees. It is important to note, however, that due to Christian hegemony in the U.S., it is relatively easier for people who identify as Christian to participate in actions, such as sanctuary provision, which may be construed as violating federal law. Muslim people experience high rates of Islamophobia and racism just as the mostly Latinx non-citizens seeking sanctuary do. Thus, it can be challenging for mosques to position themselves as places of safety for people experiencing discrimination when they face marginalization and violence themselves. For example, with great fanfare Clifton Mosque in Cincinnati, Ohio, emerged in 2017 as the first mosque in the U.S. to declare itself a sanctuary. Within a month, though, the designation changed to a solidarity congregation, which means offering support without shelter, given the more than forty serious threats of arson and death threats leveled at Imam Chartier that followed the announcement of sanctuary (Samuel 2017). In a similar vein, the Shaanti Bhavan Mandir, a Hindu temple in New York City, became the first Hindu temple in the country to declare itself a sanctuary congregation (Otterman 2017). They have held meetings for other temples in the area to become sanctuary congregations, but have not had much luck, likely due to fears of becoming a target for ICE or hate groups.

The religious beliefs guiding the NSM dovetail with a common explanation that participants are beholden to a higher moral religious law rather than the “immoral” and “unjust” immigration laws of the state (Garcia 2018: 308). As Craig Paschal, minister of Mancos United Methodist Church in Colorado, explained, “if the law is not grounded in love, grace, and human dignity, then we need to question and challenge that law” (Addanki 2017: 29). Lutherans also believe it is a violation of religious beliefs to force non-citizens to choose between staying with family in the U.S. or leaving family behind to adhere to immigration laws. As a result, Lutherans work against state laws so as to follow “God’s law” (Alexander 2015). Related, Quakers view sanctuary as a righteous act and maintain their belief in following a higher power (Rabben 2018:7). Part of the Quakers’ drive to assist in humanitarian work like sanctuary comes from their own history. They sought sanctuary from English persecution and have remained consistently involved in helping others in similar situations. In the face of government injustice, it is the responsibility of the common person to act morally, a practice NSM participants see as paramount. Such a belief underpins both political actions and interpretations of religious doctrine within the social movement.

The NSM is a decentralized movement, yet participants usually have signed a shared pledge, which constitutes the minimum commitment that a congregation can make to join the NSM. The pledge describes the primary purpose of the NSM as a forum for asserting immigrant rights, illuminating the discriminatory impacts of current immigration law and enforcement, and protesting deportation and family separation. It also affirms the following: “We stand together in our faith that everyone, regardless of national origin, has basic common rights, including but not limited to: 1) livelihood; 2) family unity; and 3) physical and emotional safety” (New Sanctuary Movement 2015). Various NSM chapters around the U.S. have developed slightly different iterations of this pledge to suit their specific contexts. [Image at right]  In general, though, this pledge signals a collective articulation of the movement’s core beliefs and illustrates the religious foundations of the movement (Yukich 2013a).

Not all of the NSM’s doctrine is explicitly religious. There are political beliefs and practices guiding the activism as well. For instance, a key goal of the movement centers upon raising awareness about the violence inherent to family separation. Individuals’ stories constitute a primary forum for making this evident since narratives convey a human dimension to the reality of detention, deportation, and family separation. These stories frequently emphasize the ordinariness (generally meaning in this context, heterosexual, married, with children, and employed) of non-citizens in mixed-status families. Such depictions are meant to elicit support and to reduce the othering of non-citizens, especially people living in sanctuary. At the same time, such relatively narrow portrayals of non-citizens do not cultivate pluralistic and complex portrayals of people living in sanctuary. This focus on welcoming “ordinary” proto-Americans can also obscure the experiences of non-citizens who do not fit into such categories and life experiences (Houston and Morse 2017; Yukich 2013a).


Providing physical sanctuary in places of worship to non-citizens who are part of mixed-status families and have final deportation orders represents a core practice of the NSM. Due to ICE’s policy of not entering “sensitive locations,” the inside of a place of worship is relatively safe (Morton 2011). As a result, in an effort to avoid deportation and remain in the U.S. with family members, non-citizens have sought sanctuary in churches, synagogues, and temples. Living in sanctuary is not a decision undertaken lightly by non-citizens or host congregations, especially since people living in sanctuary are confined within the place of worship. Non-citizens give up for weeks, months, or even years their independent lives and exchange routinely seeing children and spouses, working, and being outside to avoid deportation. Host congregations agree to support materially and spiritually sanctuary seekers for an indefinite period of time. Consequently, taking refuge in a place of worship entails many steps, including the preparation of the faith community and sanctuary seeker for the declaration of sanctuary, the process of living in sanctuary, and sanctuary actions outside and beyond the bounds of the place of worship. While some faith communities host sanctuary seekers, others elect to financially and spiritually support people living in sanctuary elsewhere. Still others focus their activism on protesting the violence caused by family separation. Put differently, not all chapters of the NSM engage in the practice of offering physical sanctuary in places of worship.

The first step in the process of providing sanctuary involves the faith community associated with the house of worship determining whether or not to offer physical sanctuary. The act of declaring a church, and less commonly a synagogue, temple, or mosque, a sanctuary results from a collective decision-making practice known as a discernment process. The discernment process begins with self-reflection on the part of the congregation. Key discernment questions include: is the congregation prepared to act in solidarity with non-citizens? To what extent can members put that sentiment into practice? In the initial years of the NSM, once the faith community decided to offer sanctuary, a search for an “ideal” sanctuary seeker commenced. Congregations’ ideal sanctuary seeker would be someone who had a good work record, no criminal history, and who could “speak from the heart about their love for their children, their neighborhood, their community and this country, as well as their religious faith” (New Sanctuary Movement 2007). As one of the movement’s main beliefs is the power of stories, NSM activists prioritized families who had compelling stories of hardship and faced an immediate danger of deportation and family separation. Such a background often contained the necessary ingredients for successful advocacy. After a candidate for sanctuary had been chosen, focused efforts on building trust and relationships between the non-citizen and the congregation, as well as clarifying expectations and promises about the myriad risks and benefits of sanctuary, followed. This ritual of choosing a sanctuary seeker was an important part of discernment in the movement’s early years. NSM chapters frequently drafted “toolkits” to describe these practices and to establish common protocols for discernment (New Sanctuary Movement 2007, 2015).

In the NSM’s re-emergence since 2014, greater self-advocacy by migrants has become more evident. For instance, non-citizens generally are no longer sought out for sanctuary by congregations, but rather decide for themselves if seeking sanctuary makes sense given personal circumstances (Benshoff 2019; Timpane and Delp 2019). For example, Jeanette Vizguerra entered sanctuary in Denver in 2017 when her attorney did not receive a response on another stay of deportation and she had an approaching check-in with ICE, which carried the chance of detainment (Kunichoff 2017:18). As Vizguerra demonstrates, individuals know best what they need in such circumstances. Accordingly, the process of sanctuary works most optimally through partnership with non-citizens rather than when positioned as an act of charity. Currently, there are approximately fifty people living in sanctuary around the U.S. (Russell-Kraft 2019).

Before non-citizens move into sanctuary, the hosting congregation holds a public press conference with local media to announce the upcoming sanctuary provision (New Sanctuary Movement 2015). This serves to publicize the migrant’s story to provoke moral outrage and to pressure immigration authorities to grant a stay of removal, which means dropping deportation orders. The practice of a public announcement is strategic as it can deflect accusations of illegally harboring non-citizens as well. With social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, NSM activists further spread the word about people living in sanctuary. Local NSM members also pray with sanctuary dwellers and organize rallies, protests, and various other gatherings to show support for non-citizens.

While taking sanctuary in a physical place of worship is the most well-known of sanctuary practices, relatively few migrants actually move into sanctuary due to the strict criteria deployed in the early years of the NSM and the hardships associated with living in such confinement. Consequently, NSM chapters have practiced additional forms of sanctuary, such as Sanctuary in the Streets.[Image at right] A direct-action approach designed by the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia and practiced by many local NSM chapters, Sanctuary in the Streets focuses on creating information sharing systems to alert residents to the presence of ICE and to try and interrupt immigration raids. In Philadelphia, for example, the NSM maintains a phone hotline with Spanish/English and Indonesian/English so community members can rapidly learn about and resist ICE raids. The vast majority of sanctuary seekers in the country are Latinx, which is why there is a Spanish hotline, and Philadelphia specifically is home to the second largest Indonesian population in the United States. NSM activists undergo nonviolence training to prepare for this work. As of April 2017, 1,800 people had signed up to participate as volunteers for Sanctuary in the Streets in Philadelphia. The hotline has received dozens of calls since the Trump administration began, and NSM activists have been successful in using public pressure to encourage a reduction in ICE activities in Philadelphia (Glatzer and Carr-Lemke 2016; Kunichoff 2017). More broadly, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) along with their nonprofit UURISE operationalizes Sanctuary in the Street across the U.S. through a rapid response network that can “maintain a prayerful witness; film and record what unfolds; or risk arrest by surrounding the building or blocking enforcement vehicles” (Unitarian Universalist Association 2017:25).

Accompanying non-citizens to meetings with ICE marks another important and frequently utilized practice of Sanctuary in the Streets. In an effort to show solidarity with non-citizens and to record encounters with immigration enforcement, clergy members often accompany migrants to check-ins with immigration enforcement officials and to immigration hearings. Through this accompaniment, clergy members “provide emotional support, put pressure on ICE officials to avoid drastic action, and contact family members if something goes wrong” (Addanki 2017:29). The practice of accompaniment dovetails with important religious doctrine underpinning the NSM, especially the ideas from Leviticus and Isaiah of standing with the oppressed.

Accompaniment works hand in hand with advocacy, which is another key practice of the NSM. Advocacy assumes multiple forms from Know Your Rights trainings to protests to #sacredresistance to letter writing and phone calling campaigns (New Sanctuary Movement 2007, 2020). NSM chapters frequently work in concert with legal service providers and immigrant rights organizations to communicate with authorities. Drawing on the megaphone of the media assists such endeavors.

Some municipal, county, and state governments throughout the U.S. have adopted sanctuary policies, which govern the relationship between local authorities and ICE and delineate local enforcement practices (Badger 2014; Bauder 2017; Houston 2019; Lasch et al. 2018; Ridgley 2008; Varsanyi et al. 2012). These practices may intersect with the activities of the faith-based NSM, yet represent secular practices enacted to further the process of sanctuary.


The NSM is a decentralized social movement and as such does not have a national board of directors or universally recognized main leaders. Instead, there are numerous chapters of the movement spread across major cities in the United States. Some noteworthy chapters include the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia; the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City; the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, of which Jeanette Vizguerra is an organizer; the Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition; and the Chicago New Sanctuary Coalition, which supported Elvira Arellano when she took sanctuary in Adalberto United Methodist Church (Addanki 2017; Barron 2017). Chapters of the NSM contain various participating congregations, not all of whom provide physical sanctuary. The grassroots basis for the NSM encourages context-specific actions and creates space for evolving responses to local needs.


As with all social movements, the NSM grapples with some notable challenges. A long-standing and key issue pertains to the public face of the movement’s leadership. Since non-citizens are frequently invisible in active leadership roles (a notable exception to this is the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York), the NSM can appear as a paternalistic endeavor sustained by white middle-class people of faith “rescuing” racialized “others.” To this point, the NSM’s early process for finding sanctuary dwellers, where activists would seek someone out based on a set of “ideal” traits, let the NSM host congregation set the terms for who could receive help. As a result, migrants’ perspectives and needs were often silenced and certain non-citizens overlooked (Houston and Morse 2017). For instance, sanctuary was infrequently offered to someone who is LGBTQ+, despite the fact that such individuals experience high rates of violence, both in the United States and in countries around the world (Hauck 2019; United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees n.d.). Such a situation truncates the opportunities for solidarity and dynamic, intersectional storytelling about the many people who migrate to and live in the United States.

Another prominent challenge within the NSM revolves around language. The vast majority of sanctuary seekers in the U.S. are from Latin America, but not all speak Spanish. Many migrants only speak Indigenous languages, such as K’iche’, Mixtec, Zapotec, Mam, and Q’anjob’al. This reality presents challenges for activists in the U.S., as there is a dearth of interpreters fluent in these languages. So, migrants may not be able to communicate their needs and receive appropriate support (Medina 2019). Another challenge related to language pertains to the persistent discourse within public policy, popular press, and some activism about migrant “deservingness” (Yukich 2013b). The NSM is not immune to these logics and at times has sought to mobilize support for migrants based on normative categories of worthiness (such as family and employment status and faith tradition), rather than advocating that people can access sanctuary because safety from harm is a basic human right. The division of migrants into a “good”/“bad” binary with the added focus on “illegality” and “criminality” ignores common humanity and the larger forces that influence daily life (Barron 2017; De Genova 2002; Stumpf 2006). While some non-citizens commit violent crimes, research demonstrates that the presence of non-citizens does not increase the prevalence of violent crime or drug and alcohol problems in a place (Burnett 2018). Thus, challenging the narrative of a “good” or a “bad” non-citizen helps underscore the fact that geopolitical relationships, racism, and other structural factors shape life opportunities (Dingeman et al. 2016:69). NSM activists engage with these nuances to varying degrees.

Time represents another challenge for the NSM. Non-citizens may live in sanctuary for years while awaiting a hopeful stay of removal, which effectively puts a pause on their independent lives. The time span of sanctuary has a number of wide-ranging effects. For example, Rosa Robles Loreto lived in Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church for fifteen months, which translates into fifteen months of confinement, lost days of paid work, reduced interactions with her family, and diminished personal autonomy (Lo 2015: 24). The period of lost income for sanctuary families produces material consequences. At the same time, the length of sanctuary poses financial constraints on congregations because “housing someone in a house of worship for an indeterminate amount of time takes time and resources” (Barron 2017:197). Time is money, both for sanctuary seekers and hosters.

Time matters in other ways too within the NSM. For instance, the media cycle moves at a fast rate. The internet and social media promulgate an endless array of stories; the most important issue of the moment can be yesterday’s news in a few hours. Thus, it can be hard to sustain attention on a topic for an extended period of time. This poses a challenge for the NSM since achieving a stay of removal for someone living in sanctuary requires a high degree of sustained public pressure. Yet, when non-citizens are in sanctuary for months or years, they can fade from public view. When the public pressure drops, it makes it easier for immigration officials to ignore non-citizens’ cases, leaving people in limbo for protracted periods of time.

The fact that sanctuary is a stopgap measure that can never adequately replace the need for comprehensive immigration reform is also an issue for the NSM. Put simply, there will never be enough houses of worship for the number of non-citizens who might seek sanctuary. [Image at right] By way of example, one Connecticut-based activist described realizing that even though the local chapter had a list of twenty churches ready to act as sanctuary congregations “that’s the number of people ICE deports every day from Philly. What do we do tomorrow? And the day after that?” (as quoted in Lozada 2017:123). It is impossible to assist everyone, which underscores that physical sanctuary is a band-aid approach rather than a long-term solution.

In short, the violence of family separation and unjust immigration policies cannot be resolved through sanctuary practices. An abolitionist view of sanctuary, though, advocates for continuing the fight against federal immigration enforcement, “as well as local policing practices that criminalize entire communities through gang databases and broken windows tactics – all of which would reduce arrests and diminish the pipeline feeding deportations” (Paik 2017:18). Abolitionist approaches contest state violence and white supremacy and advocate for a critical recasting of sanctuary (Roy 2019). Such transformations could contribute to a pluralistic society which upholds human rights and dignity. Since this is not currently the context of the U.S., NSM chapters continue to draw upon their faith traditions as they support non-citizens seeking an opportunity to stay in the U.S. with their families and communities, accompany people to meetings with ICE, and engage in direct action activism to counter immigration raids and widespread deportation.


Image #1: Sanctuary Everywhere graphic.
Image #2: Memorabilia from the Sanctuary Movement for Central Americans.
Image #3: Logo for the New York New Sanctuary Coalition.
Image #4: Public announcement of sanctuary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Image #5: José Chicas announcing his sanctuary in Durham, North Carolina.
Image #6: Protest in San Francisco, California.
Image #7: Protest sign signaling the broad application of sanctuary.
Image #8: Daniel Neyoy Ruiz entering sanctuary in Tucson, Arizona.


Addanki, Dhanya. 2017. “Safe House: As the Trump Administration Continues Its Attacks against Immigrants, Churches Offer Sanctuary, and More, to People under Threat.” Sojourner’s Magazine 46:26-30.

Alexander, Laura. 2015. “Lutheran Thought, Civil Disobedience, and the New Sanctuary Movement.” Pp. 225–38 in Strangers in This World: Multireligious Reflections on Immigration, edited by Allen G. Jorgenson et al. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Badger, Emily. 2014. “Why More and More Cities are Refusing to Help the Government Deport Immigrants.” Washington Post, October 8. Accessed from on 25 January 2020.

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Publication Date:
2 February 2020